Eating a juicy, ripe, red tomato from your backyard garden is healthy and rewarding, but you can get safe, healthy produce from the supermarket, too—not to mention convenience.

You're sure that the peas, tomatoes, and zucchini you pick from your own garden are better than their cousins sitting on the shelves at the supermarket. And you're probably right, if you haven't overdone it with the pesticides.

"That's the freshest food you're ever going to eat," says Randy Schultz about the fruits and vegetables you plant, water, and tend yourself. Schultz, who handles public relations for the Mail Order Gardening Association, adds that "when you grow your own, you know where it's from," acknowledging concerns about pesticide residues and genetically engineered food.

Supermarket Produce: Not Homegrown, But Still Nutritious

The supermarket folks admit they can't match a home garden for freshness.

"But we don't live off the land as our ancestors did 200 years ago," says Bernie Rogan, spokesperson for Massachusetts-based Shaw's Supermarkets. "So the home garden is a complement to supermarket produce."

Day in and day out, supermarkets offer a variety of fruits and vegetables that most people could never dream of growing at home. Since fruits and vegetables produced on an industrial scale are often bred for ease of harvest or stability during transportation rather than taste, there’s nothing in the supermarket that can match a homegrown, heirloom tomato.

"In the food industry, we encourage people to plant gardens and to buy from the supermarkets what they can't grow," says Kathy Means, spokesperson for the Produce Marketing Association. "Besides," says Means, "the commercial growers love it when home gardeners begin to understand the challenges, like insects and weather, that they are up against all the time."

Little Loss in Nutrients From Farm to Supermarket

Although some nutrients—vitamin C in particular—are prone to breakdown during the journey from farm to table, the difference in nutrient content (as opposed to taste) between homegrown and supermarket produce is generally small.

"Depending on the particular fruit or vegetable, the time it's picked, and how it's handled, there is a rough average of 10% loss in nutrient quality from farm to table," says Adel Kader, professor of post-harvest physiology at the University of California at Davis.

Pesticides Well-Controlled

Many consumers are understandably nervous about the potential for toxic pesticide residues on commercially grown produce. While it's true that commercial growers use chemicals to protect crops from agricultural pests, both the pesticides and their application methods are tightly regulated and monitored. Farmers in every state are required by law to undergo training before receiving certification in pesticide application. Agencies like the United States Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, and Food and Drug Administration have banned many pesticides and do random testing for residues on farm produce.

Genetic Engineering

The issue of genetically engineered food is less clear and people are concerned about implications for health, safety, and the environment. Many processed foods that are already sold in supermarkets are made in part from genetically engineered soy, corn, canola and cotton, but these foods are generally regarded as safe. If you want to totally avoid the influence of genetic engineering, however, you'll have to buy fresh ]]>organic]]> produce or grow your own.

"Locally Grown" Is the Best Bet for Freshness

Some supermarket chains give consumers a fresher option by selling locally grown produce in season.

"Locally grown cuts the farm-to-table lag from 3-7 days down to about 48 hours," says Rich Bonanno, a farmer in Methuen, Mass., who also works for the University of Massachusetts Extension.

Even better are the "ship-to-store" arrangements between some supermarkets and local growers.

"We have agreements for in-season produce with 100 farms in New England," says Bernie Rogan of Shaw's. "They deliver right to the store and we identify the local farm on a sign by the item—their name is on it."

Tips for Getting Safe, Healthy Produce Into Your Diet

There are some steps you can take to increase the amount of fresh, nutritious produce in your diet:

In the Home Garden

  • Grow things that you like and will be sure to eat.
  • Use toxic substances carefully; follow instructions exactly on all pesticides and herbicides; apply only the amount indicated at the correct time in the correct manner. Note, however, that adding pesticides and herbicides means the produce is no longer organic.
  • If adding manure, mix it into the soil before planting; don't use as a side dressing.
  • If desired, buy seeds and plants from sources that guarantee their products have not been exposed to any pesticides and are not genetically engineered.
  • Go organic: use no pesticides and just pick off, hose off, or use natural methods for bugs, slugs, fungus and the like. In a small garden, you don't need to use the products that a commercial farmer uses.
  • Lead in soil is not considered a big risk with vegetables, but you may wish to follow these recommendations for minimizing danger: Opt for leafy and fruiting produce (eg, lettuce and tomatoes) rather than root crops (eg, carrots and potatoes); locate the garden away from roads and away from old painted structures that might have dropped lead paint chips into soil; have soil tested at the local county extension service if in doubt.

At the Supermarket

  • Don't overdo it with any one fruit or vegetable; buy and eat a variety of items.
  • Buy organic produce if you're concerned about pesticides and genetic engineering.
  • Talk to your supermarket's management and encourage them to seek out and offer locally grown and organically grown choices.

Wash It!

Wash, rinse, or peel all produce even if it looks clean. This will remove residues on the surface. Wash even the rinds of oranges and cantaloupe before cutting or removing them.

Store It Right!

Store fresh fruits and vegetables correctly to optimize freshness and taste. Whether your produce came from the store or the backyard, storing it correctly makes a difference in how long it retains freshness and flavor. Learn which items should be stored in the refrigerator, for example, and which should not.

Aside from these tips, one of the more important general tips is one from mom: eat your fruits and vegetables—no matter where you chose to get them.

"The issue is not the difference between garden and supermarket produce," says Adel Kader. "The real issue for all of us," he says, "is to eat more fruits and vegetables wherever you get them." Kader says that in his own garden and in the supermarket, "I select the vegetables and fruits that taste the best because I know I'll eat more of them."